Oct. 31, 2021

Villisca Axe Murders // 82 // Haunted

Villisca Axe Murders // 82 // Haunted

On June 9th, 1912, the Moore family went to an evening church service.  They allowed their daughter to bring the Stillinger girls home for a sleepover, but things went horribly wrong.  All eight people were hacked to death with an axe.  No one has ever been convicted, but the town gossipers pointed their fingers at several suspects.  The house is now haunted and a dark force has forced two people to stab themselves.


This story starts in Villisca, Iowa on a hot summer day on June 9th, 1912. Villisca is believed to be derived from the word waliska. The founders believed they were naming it after a Native American word that meant pretty place or beautiful view, but they actually gave it a name that meant evil spirit. Josiah Moore was 43 and made a living in the hardware business, he supplied the local farmers with the items they needed for their business. His wife, Sara Moore age 40 maintained the home and took care of their four children, Herman age 11, Katherine age 10, Arthur age 7, and Paul age 5. It was a Sunday and the Moore family was getting ready for church. It was an evening service and this was a pretty special event because it was a Children's Day program. The daughter Katherine met up with two of her friends at the service that day, Lena age 11 and Ina Stillinger age 8 and they were going home with the Moores for a sleepover. The kids in town had all worked on their skits and were excited to present them to the audience. Everyone enjoyed the special church event and the Moores arrived home around 9:30 to 10 PM. 

No one is quite sure how the murderer entered the home that night. Some people believe they broke into the house while the Moores were at the church and they waited in the attic or one of the closets. Then, the intruder waited for the lights to go out and the house to be quiet before doing anything. Other people believe that the killer entered late that night once everyone was asleep. There was an adult sized imprint in the hay in the barn, so the killer may have spent time in the barn watching the family. The murderer took Josiah's own ax for the killing spree.

The master bedroom where Josiah and Sara Moore slept was believed to be the first stop. They were both murdered in their bed and the master bedroom was located at the top of the stairs. When the ax was swung, it actually grazed the ceiling and left several gouges. Sara and Josiah were on their backs and the mattress and pillows were drenched with blood. Josiah had been struck more times than anyone in the house. They were both struck repeatedly and their faces were almost unrecognizable. Dr. Linquist reported that Josiah's face was cut worse than Sarah's. The top of the skull was crushed and the face was cut. The eyes were gone and the cheeks were cut, but the cheekbones weren't crushed. The children were cut in the same way and the tops of their heads were broken and crushed in. It looked as if the brains were chopped out by an instrument.

The four Moore children were murdered next as they were sleeping in their beds in the upstairs bedroom. Their ceiling also had several marks from the axe. The boys had shirts placed over their heads and the girl had a dress over hers. 

In the downstairs bedroom, there was a bed in the corner of the room and Ina Stilinger was lying on her back. It's believed that she was killed instantly from a blow to the head from the flat edge of the ax and was struck several times after she was dead. A gray coat was covering her face. Lena Stilinger was on the side of the bed with her nightgown pushed up and she was naked from the waist down. She was lying on her right side and her right hand was under the pillow. It looked like the killer turned her this way after she died because blood had already seeped through the pillow and onto the bed before her arm was placed there. There was a smear of blood on the inside of her right knee. Some reports say she was sexually assaulted and others contradict that. So both of these girls were at the house for a sleepover. The girls' mother tried to call a few times to find out when her daughters were coming home from the sleepover, but couldn't get through. When she called back, the operator informed her that everyone in the house was dead. 

The killer moved around the house and shut all of the curtains and covered the large mirror on the dresser. Then, he used kerosene lamps to light the way as he moved around the house. A kerosene lamp was sitting on the floor at the foot of Josiah and Sarah's bed and the wick was turned down. Another lamp was at the foot of the bed that the Stillinger girls slept in. A pan of bloody water was found in the kitchen and looks like the killer tried to wash up. A slab of bacon was wrapped in a dishcloth in the kitchen and another slab was in the icebox. There was also a plate of food prepared, but it hadn't been eaten. Could the killer have been calm enough to make a meal afterwards? Did they realize they were running out of time and needed to leave? Or was this an intentional distraction? A piece of key chain was discovered on the floor in the downstairs bedroom and is believed to belong to the intruder. 

The Moores were known for getting up really early in the morning because they would feed all of their animals and start their chores. They didn't sleep in, especially on a weekday. One of the neighbors found it odd that she didn't see the family out working in the morning and she noticed that all of the shades were pulled down. Mary Peckham waited all morning for Josiah to walk outside that house, but she was getting worried when that didn't happen. At 7 AM, she went over to the Moore house and knocked on the door. The doors were locked and of course, no one answered. Mary figured they were sick because the family had actually just been quarantined twice for small pox, but something felt eery and she noticed that the door was locked from the inside. Mary decided to let everyone sleep and she went out to the Moores barn to let their chickens out and feed the animals. When she went back to her home, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, so she called Josiah's brother, Ross who arrived at the house with a key. He went inside the house and saw two bodies on the bed in the downstairs room and blood was everywhere. He immediately ran out of the house and shouted that they needed to call the sheriff. The Marshal, Hank Horton arrived and confirmed that all 8 people in the house were dead and the axe/murder weapon was just casually placed against the wall. The head trauma was so severe that the victims' skulls had been completely shattered.

Due to an issue between the town council and the electricity company, the power had been shut down on June 9th, so the whole town was pitch black. Electricity was restored the next day, but a newspaper reporter referred to June 9th as the darkest night in Villisca's history. 

The crime scene was never preserved and there was a constant stream of people that went through the home on the morning of June 10th. All the locals saw the murder scene and outsiders traveled there by train. The hotel rooms and boarding houses filled up because everyone wanted a peek. Police officers, medical professionals, and nosy neighbors all entered the home without worrying about disturbing the scene. DNA testing wasn't a thing at this time, it was a new idea to take fingerprints, and they rarely took photographs of scenes. The police later admitted that they did the bare minimum in this case because it was so gruesome, they wanted to get out of there. When the coroner arrived, he had to push through a large crowd of people to get inside and the police eventually put up barbed wire, but it didn't keep people away. No one knows how many people actually went through the house to view the scene and it's unclear if people took any souvenirs with them. After everyone had their turn to see the gruesome scene, they began to wonder...who did it? Will the murderer strike again? The men formed mobs and started going through town to find the person responsible. They were convinced that this was the work of an outsider, so they hunted for anyone that was unfamiliar to them.

Bloodhounds were brought to the scene and were given the scent from the downstairs closet because it was believed that the killer waited there. It was also where a heal print had been discovered on a magazine. People gathered to watch the bloodhounds follow the scent through the streets of Villisca. Some people say that the senator, Frank Jones was in the crowd and said that the dogs were going the wrong way. He later swore that he never said that, but the town wouldn't let it go. The bloodhounds followed the trail to the banks of the river, then stopped. It was a dead end. 

The Sheriff hired people to clean the Moore house. They took out the blood soaked mattresses and sheets and wrapped everything in a bundle to load in the wagon. The items were brought to the city dump and when they shook the bedding out, several pieces of bone and flesh rolled out. The workers started a fire to burn the items and further destroyed evidence. 


The family may have been murdered by a gang

The murderer was naked during the murders, but he wore gloves because bloody clothing was never found. The killer cleaned up, got dressed, and easily walked away without raising suspicion.

The killer was superstitious and that's why they covered the mirrors. It was bad luck to see yourself naked in a mirror.

Transient butcher that arrived on the train 

Could there be more than one killer? How did someone murder the entire family while they were asleep and move from room to room without anyone getting up?


Anyone that had been near the town that night became a suspect. No one was ever convicted, but the town gossip was absolutely unreal. Frank Jones, the Senator, was a man of power and he wasn't well liked by everyone because he was arrogant and self centered. Josiah worked for Frank Jones for several years and he eventually left and took the John Deere franchise with him. People in town say that Frank Jones was pretty upset about this. Could Frank Jones really be so pissed that he would kill Josiah's whole family plus two unrelated children? Well, there's another rumor that ties into the Jones theory. Frank Jones' son married a lady that had a reputation for having an inappropriate number of gentlemen callers and apparently she did this when her husband was away. There were rumors floating around town that one of those gentlemen callers was Josiah Moore. Stories of an affair would certainly cause public humiliation for a senator. It's believed that Frank and his son may have hired William “Blackie” Manfield to commit the murders.

William Mansfield worked for Frank and he was a convicted criminal and oddly enough, his own family was murdered with an axe 2 years after the Villisca murders and their killer wasn't found either. William's wife, child, father-in-law, and mother-in-law were murdered with an ax and the mirrors in the home were covered. That's the same thing that happened at the Moore house.

Reverend George Kelly was a troubled man who was known for being eccentric and a peeping tom. He was definitely in Villisca on the night of the murder because he attended the same church event as the Moore family. Two witnesses ran into Reverend Kelly on the train the next morning and he talked about the axe murders from the night before, but the town didn't know about it yet. He talked nonstop about the murders to anyone who would listen and said he had visions and dreams about it.

The case went cold, but in 1913, a letter from a private detective was sent to the police detailing information about Kelly and his unnatural sexual tendencies and how he talked about the murders. He had taken a bloody shirt to a laundry place a day or two after the murders. The Bluffs City Laundry was contacted and an employee confirmed they had seen the shirt. The blood soaked all the way through the fabric and looked like someone attempted to soak the shirt in water to get the stain out prior to bringing it in. It was a white shirt with a detachable collar and cuffs, with a front pleat. Like a minister would wear.

Keep in mind that during this time, axe murders were more common. Another suspect came into play after murdering two women with an axe. Henry Moore (no relation to the Moore family in Villisca) murdered his mother and grandmother with an axe while they slept. Since it was the same kind of murder, he was a suspect, but there's no evidence tying him to this. 

One of Sarah's family members became a suspect too. Lee Van Gilder was the ex-husband of one of Sarah's sisters. He was known for being violent and there was a rumor that he and Josiah had gotten into a fight which lead him to divorce his wife.

People in town did wonder if the Stillinger girls' father was the murderer. What if he agreed to let his daughters go to the sleepover with the sole purpose of murdering them? Joe Stillinger wasn't very likeable and didn't socialize with the locals. On June 9th, he supposedly refused to take his daughters to church and he got in a fight with his wife, Sarah, when she let them walk into town and go to church. Joe was investigated and it was noted that he had a bad reputation and was a wicked man, but he was also a hard worker and he was honest. The girls had seven other siblings, so I don't really get this theory. I'm not sure why the father would get rid of two of his kids. There was also a rumor that Joseph Stillinger was having trouble with some men he hired recently. It was basically thought that his employees could be so pissed that they wanted to kill his daughters.

Billy the Axman went on a killing spree and ended up becoming a suspect in this as well.


In a pool hall, they had displayed a chunk of bone with the flesh still attached and they claimed it was a piece of Josiah's skull. Apparently the next person that bought the pool hall found the bone wrapped in cloth and tucked in a glass. His wife thought it was disgusting and made him throw it away. 

Lena Stillinger could identify her killer. According to a newspaper report, detectives were able to get a photo of the murderer from an image preserved on the retina of Lena's eyes. This story may have been planted by a detective to get someone to confess.

The Moore house was owned by several people and it was rented out as well. In 1994, the house was purchased by Darwin and Martha Linn and they were interested in the historical value. They wanted to restore the house and this may have been the very thing that stirred up the activity.

In 2010 Zak Bagans went to the house to film his show, Ghost Hunters. He was interviewing a former resident of the house, Linda and her sister Patty. They were children when they lived in the Moore House and they said they heard the sound of a little girl's voice near their room. They also said that one day, their father was in the kitchen, sharpening a knife away from his body and a force grabbed his arm and forced him to stab his hand. Former resident, Linda says that she has always felt a dark presence at the house and feels that it calls her back. Zak brought out his voice recorder and he asked if anyone will speak with him to give Linda closure and the group heard a male voice say, Where is she? Microphones were set up all over the house and they heard a voice say I killed six kids. They heard 3 footsteps on the hardwood floor, the attic door slammed shut and they heard more footsteps. 

The Ghost Hunters team set up their spirit box. It's a machine that is used to pick up verbal communications with spirits. They heard the word Lena. Then, a child's voice said wanna play? They asked the child's name and they said Paul. These are both names of children that were murdered in the house. Before Linda and her sister left the house, they said they always believed the murderer was there. The murderer left the house and didn't die there...how would they be stuck in the house? If it is true, this makes me wonder if the killer left almost like an imprint in time.

A paranormal investigator, Robert Laursen Jr. stayed in the Villisca house overnight. At the time, it cost $428 to spend the night, but things went horribly wrong. He brought a knife with him and it's believed that he was trying to tempt the spirits of the house, but he felt a force grab him and the knife went through his chest. He survived, but he's done with the Villisca house.


Children's voices whispering, laughing, or playing with toys.

One of the little girls likes to growl at people

Objects moving on their own

Doors open and close 

Loud footsteps are heard throughout the house 

Apparitions and shadows

Lots of activity at 2AM (when the train passes through the town)

Light fog in the master bedroom and moves from room to room

dripping sound and people think it's blood dripping

Feeling of being followed

bad vibes

People have reported being scratched

Feels heavy and oppressive

Random cold spots in the house Resources:

A Nightmare in Villisca Investigating the Haunted Axe Murder House by Richard Estep

Amazon.com: A Nightmare in Villisca: Investigating the Haunted Axe Murder House: 9798682129744: Estep, Richard, Houser, Johnny: Books

Murdered In Their Beds History And Hauntings Of Villisca And The Midwest Ax Murders by Troy Taylor

Murdered in Their Beds: Taylor, Troy: 9781892523785: Amazon.com: Books

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